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Determining the Number of Residents for Your Rental Unit

in Property Management - Various Topics

One of the most common questions asked of the RPOA staff is: How many people can live in a rental unit? Well, the answer to this question is somewhat complicated and varies depending on which community the rental unit is located in.


Generally Speaking:

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) publishes a guideline that is somewhat useful for determining the number of individuals you should allow to live in a single rental unit. The guideline says that, typically, you should use the “2 plus 1 person per bedroom” rule. For example: If you have a one bedroom apartment, you should set the limit to three people. You’re probably asking yourself: How could all those people sleep in a one bedroom unit? Well, consider the couch/day bed/crib in the living room/den/office as an optional sleeping area. Also, HUD explains that other factors can be taken into account, such as the unit’s ability to sustain a large group of people through existing water services.

Warning! Don’t be too quick to carve this rule in your granite book of rules. There are many other factors that may change the number that you “must” allow or not allow to live in a rental unit.

Federal and State fair housing laws (and most communities) also state that you may not discriminate against families. Meaning: A landlord cannot refuse to rent to families—all children included—simply because the landlord does not want to rent to families with children. Be careful when setting occupancy limits to avoid the perception of discrimination against families. A house with very large bedrooms may be able to accommodate more people.


Community-by-Community Rules

If you own rental property in the City of Grand Rapids, the above HUD guideline will NOT apply. If you live in another community, things may even be more different.

The City of Grand Rapids has two codes which guide the number of occupants that can live in a dwelling unit—the Zoning Code and the Housing Code.

The Housing Code is often easier to follow than other codes or rules. It simply states the number of occupants allowed per the available square footage of the entire unit AND the square footage of each bedroom. The Zoning code is more difficult because it attempts to regulate the number of people based on “family” type. The definition of family varies within the Zoning Code—making interpretation frustrating. The zoning laws may also limit the number of parking spaces.


Zoning Code

The Grand Rapids zoning code dictates the type of dwelling that can be built or maintained in a particular area of the community. A dwelling is defined as a building or portion thereof, which is used exclusively for human habitation. Included within this definition are one-family, two-family and multiple-family dwellings, apartment, hotels, boarding and lodging houses, but not hotels, motels, motor hotels, tourist rooms or bed and breakfast operations, mobile homes or trailers, motor homes, automobile chassis, tents or portable buildings. For the purposes here, we are primarily concerned with one-family, two-family and multiple-family dwellings available for rent. The operative word in the above definition of dwelling is “family.” The zoning code further defines “family” as follows: Family shall consist of one (1) of the following:

(a) An individual living in a single dwelling unit.

(b) A group of two (2) or more persons related by blood, marriage or legal adoption living in a single dwelling unit.

(c) Not more than six (6) foster care children living in a single dwelling unit. This provision is subject to P.A. 396 of 1976 as amended (MCL 125.583b).

(d) Not more than four (4) unrelated persons eighteen (18) years of age or older living in a single dwelling unit.

(e) Not more than six (6) foster care adults living in a single dwelling unit. This provision is subject to P.A. 218 of 1979 as amended (MCL 400.701 to 400.737).

As you can see, paragraph (d) above would limit the number of college students living together in one unit to a total of four—unless, of course, all the students were brothers and sisters from the same biological family. (Other communities, especially “college towns,” have even stricter unrelated person limits—some as few as no more than one unrelated person. For example, if a brother and sister are sharing a rental unit while attending college, they may not be able to ask another person to live with them as the other person is unrelated to both the sister and brother—creating two unrelated person situations.)

In addition, after looking at the above definition of family in paragraph (b), you could quickly come to the conclusion that any number of people can live in an apartment as long as they are related by blood, marriage or legal adoption. But, you would be wrong. Why? Because the Housing Code dictates the total number of persons allowed to occupy a certain unit by square footage. Read the next section for more details related to the Housing Code.


Housing Code

The Grand Rapids Housing Code sets out limits on occupancy. Occupancy and the word occupy in the Code mean the fact or act of a human being living or sleeping in a dwelling or unit within a dwelling, whether the human being is physically present or temporarily absent.

The actual limits on the number of occupants are dictated in part by the amount of dwelling unit floor area and sleeping area as follows:


  • Required Dwelling unit Floor Area – Every dwelling unit shall contain at least one hundred fifty (150) square feet of habitable floor area for the first occupant and at least one hundred (100) additional square feet of habitable floor area for each additional occupant.
  • Required Sleeping Area – Every bedroom, rooming unit or hotel unit shall contain at least eighty (80) square feet of habitable floor area provided that there shall be at least fifty (50) square feet of habitable floor area for each person who sleeps in that room.


Okay, let’s look at two families that apply to live in a theoretical apartment with two (2) bedrooms in the City of Grand Rapids. The apartment has 750 sq. ft. of total habitable floor area. Each bedroom has 120 sq. ft. of habitable sleeping area. (Habitable floor area and habitable sleeping area are further defined in the code. A copy of the code is available in the RPOA office.)

Family 1

The first family that applies has two married adults and two biological children. Under the Zoning Code they qualify as a family and may live in one unit. According to the Housing Code, the total unit must have 150 sq. ft. for the first person and 100 sq. ft. for each additional person for a total square footage of 450 sq. ft. Since our unit is 750 sq. ft., the total unit is large enough to accommodate the family of four. Now we must check to see if there is enough bedroom space. The Housing Code says that there must be a minimum of 80 sq. ft. in each bedroom. Both bedrooms in this example meet these minimum criteria. The Code also states that there must be 50 sq. ft. for each sleeping occupant of the room. In this example, there are four persons requiring a total of 100 sq. ft. in each bedroom. Since there is 120 sq. ft. in each bedroom, this family would qualify both on total square footage of the unit and square footage of the sleeping area.

Family 2

The second family that applies has a total of six persons—one adult and five children, including one which is adopted. Under the Zoning Code, the family qualifies to rent this unit. Now let’s look at the Housing Code. The total square footage needed for this family is 650 sq. ft. Since our unit has 750 sq. ft., the family can still live there. But, how about the number of occupants compared to the number of bedrooms. Under the Code, there would need to be at least 150 sq. ft. in each bedroom. Now we’ve got a problem. The bedrooms are only 120 sq. ft. each. So, even though the family qualifies to live in this unit by the Zoning Code and by the total square footage of the unit, they are not allowed to live there because there is not enough bedroom area to accommodate the entire family. Hence, it would be illegal for you—the landlord—to rent to them.

Yes, but…

In the above example the second family was not allowed to rent the unit because there were too many people. But, doesn’t the Federal and State law say you can’t discriminate against families? Yes, that’s what the fair housing laws say; however, since the local code dictates a more stringent requirement, the landlord may deny this family tenancy.


Other Code Issues to Be Aware Of

In some communities, there must be windows in a room in order for it to be used as a bedroom. And, those windows must be of a certain minimum size for emergency egress and ventilation reasons. You should always check with the local municipality codes to determine how many rooms can be used for sleeping.


How about unmarried couples living together?

In Michigan, case law has found that you cannot discriminate against unmarried couples of either sex. In Grand Rapids, zoning laws would allow the unmarried couple to co-habitat because they fall under the acceptable definition of a family as less than four unrelated individuals living together. The Housing

Code does not address this matter whatsoever.


How about older children of the opposite sex sharing a bedroom?

There are no Federal or State laws that control how old and what sex children must be or can’t be in order to share a bedroom. Neither the Grand Rapid’s zoning or housing code address this topic. Some communities in the State may have such a code. Be sure to check with the local appropriate city authority for details regarding this in your community.


What if there aren’t any local ordinances or codes stipulating occupancy?

If your local government does not require certain occupancy limits, etc., follow the HUD guideline on page one and apply the Federal and State laws to the given situation. Never discriminate against someone from a protected class—in this case, families.


Final Thoughts…

Always use the local code—first— as the foundation for your policy for the number of people allowed to live in your rental units. Then apply the Federal and State laws to the circumstances. If you’re worried that you still might be confused on the number of allowed occupants, contact the RPOA office or the local fair housing center for guidance.

Also, if you are limiting the number of occupants and make a statement to this effect in your advertising, be sure to properly reference the code that you are using to limit this occupancy. In absence of this statement, fair housing advocates are very likely to find you in violation of fair housing laws.